A no-hit bid in Major League Baseball, as recently as a decade ago, was a “drop what you’re doing” occasion for baseball fans — and the completion of a no-hitter was major news.
These days, the former is still somewhat true, particularly as social media speeds news of such a thing to more people — though I wouldn’t say it’s a “drop everything” moment. The latter? No-hitters register a ripple on the surprise meter instead of a spike. At the Star Tribune, it’s usually not even fodder for the cover of the sports section (as was the case with Monday’s paper, when the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta’s Sunday no-no didn’t crack the cover).
The simplest reason: no-hitters seem to happen a lot more often, and in reality they ARE happening more often. Arrieta’s no-hitter was the 6th one this season, all since June. We’re on an every-other-week schedule with no-hitters over the past few months, turning them from exceptional acts into relatively routine occurrences.
There have already been 30 no-hitters from 2010-present after there were only 15 in the entire last decade. Historically, there is an ebb and flow — there were 31 in the 1990s but just 13 in the 1980s — but we are at an unusually high peak right now at five per season so far this decade, as illustrated by this graphic of no-hitters by decade since 1920, the start of the Live Ball Era:
There are some mitigating circumstances within that chart, with the biggest being that there used to be far fewer games played (the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were played with 16 teams and a 154-game schedule, meaning there were roughly half as many games as there are today). The 1960s offer the only real comparison to this decade in terms of no-hitter frequency, with 34 no-hitters in about two-thirds the number of games played per year as now (putting that decade on pace for about five per season instead of 3.4 in an equal number of games).
The 1960s brought a dramatic change when the mound was lowered after the 1968 season because pitchers were so dominant. The 2010s are a similarly dominant era for pitchers, brought about by different factors:
*The end of the Steroid Era, generally agreed to have happened around the late 2000s, brought offensive numbers down. Juiced up pitchers were certainly part of that era, too, but hitters arguably reaped the greater benefit.
*Pitchers are nastier. While it’s hard to quantify whether sliders, cutters and other breaking pitches are getting better, the eye test seems to suggest it. What’s not hard to quantify is that pitchers are throwing harder. Thanks to PITCHf/x data, we know that hurlers averaged 89.9 mph on fastballs in 2002, 90.9 mph in 2008 and 92.0 in 2013.
*Batters are not afraid of striking out. There are way more strikeouts then their used to be. Some of it is because, as noted, pitchers are nastier. Some of it, though, is that batters are no longer faced with a stigma of being strikeout-prone. On-base percentage and slugging percentage are valued more than batting average and putting the ball in play. Consider: In 2005, MLB teams struck out an average of 1,021 times a season. In 2014, that number was 1,248. Fewer balls in play means fewer chances for a flare to the outfield or an infield single that stymies a no-hit bid before it starts.
*This is just a guess, but I also have to imagine defensive shifts have played a role in all of this. Better scouting about where batters are getting their hits — and positioning defensive players in non-traditional spots to eliminate those hits — would seem to increase the odds of a no-hitter.
All of that is the “why.” The gist of the original question was, “Are they still special?” To that, I would say: no-hitters still resonate with fans, but not in the same way they used to. Watching the end of one is still good theater, but the accomplishment itself has certainly lost its “wow” factor.